Gateway to the Classics: Hernando Cortes Conqueror of Mexico by Frederick A. Ober
Hernando Cortes Conqueror of Mexico by  Frederick A. Ober

Last Voyages and Last Days

When CortÚs landed in Mexico he was a mere wreck of his former self, worn and haggard, and so changed that no one knew him. His face was wan, his form emaciated; but his deep voice still retained the magic of its tones, and when the people heard it they recognized him instantly. He would have remained incognito, fearing violence from his enemies, but his friends would not have it so. From house to house, from town to village, along the route to the capital, ran the message, "CortÚs has returned."

The immediate answer to it was a spontaneous welcome such as no man in Mexico ever received before. Feasts and fetes succeeded, all along the way, and when at last he arrived at Tezcoco and took possession of his palace there, the enthusiasm of the populace burst all bounds. Bells rang and cannon roared their welcomes, the air resounded with acclaim. The chief enemies of CortÚs were now in prison, the two arch conspirators against him confined in wooden cages, and for a time it seemed as if he had reached the zenith of glory and power.

But while this joyous demonstration appeared to voice the feelings of the people, there was no lack of evidence that it was false. The very palace in which CortÚs resided, and which he had built for himself in the centre of the city, had been sacked during his absence, and the ground around it dug over for the treasure which it was supposed he had concealed. All his portable property had been seized and squandered, the major portion in celebrating his funeral services and "in purchasing masses for the salvation of his soul."

The natives were no longer at enmity with CortÚs. They had strewn his pathway from the coast with flowers, had been loudest in greeting; but from his own countrymen he experienced the harshest treatment. Scarcely had the sound of rejoicings died away, than word came from the coast that a royal officer had arrived from Spain to establish a residencia—or an official inquiry—into the affairs of CortÚs, who was charged with appropriating the treasures of Guatemotzin, of seeking to maintain himself independently of the crown, of withholding its revenues, and many other things.

He knew the futility of opposing the emperor's commands, so he politely welcomed the royal commissioner, Luis Ponce de Leon, attended him to his palace, and set forth a sumptuous banquet in his honor, at Iztapalapan. Several of the commissioner's company were made very ill by partaking of some delicious cheese-cakes at this banquet, and as the gentleman himself was seized with a mysterious and fatal malady, soon after he opened the court of inquiry, rumors soon filled the air that CortÚs had poisoned him. The sudden deaths of Dona Catalina and Garay were brought to mind, and at a later inquiry an official charge was made against him as having been instrumental in causing them. The successor of De Leon took the most sinister view. He persecuted CortÚs in many ways, and finally issued an order for his expulsion from the capital. So far as the court of inquiry had proceeded, CortÚs had been vindicated and the charges brought against him refuted; but he was weary of the perpetual assaults upon his integrity. He resolved to set out immediately for Spain, and demand justice from his majesty; although it has been made to appear that his going thither was not a voluntary act, but had been brought about by machinations at the court.

One thing very conspicuous in the attitude of CortÚs is his respect, even reverence, for the authority of his sovereign. He promptly obeyed the royal commands, and his restraint in this instance may be appreciated when it is recalled that the judicial commissioners had authority (he was told) to confiscate his properties, and even to cut off his head, if found guilty of the charges urged against him.

Though the priests and politicians had absorbed much of his money, CortÚs had sufficient available to purchase and provision two vessels, in which he set sail for Spain. After a voyage of forty days he arrived at the port of Palos, in the last of December, 1527, and thence set out to visit the court. From this same port of Palos, thirty-four years before him, Christopher Columbus had started on a similar journey, after returning from his first voyage to America. Both Columbus and CortÚs were everywhere received with acclaim by the people, and both took with them specimens of the new country's products, as well as Indian captives. CortÚs took gems, gold, and the famous feather-work; while as types of the natives he had several Aztec and Tlascalan chiefs, and a son of Montezuma.

Arrived at court, CortÚs pleased the emperor by his engaging presence, for, as one of his admirers once remarked, he "must have been for a long time past exercising himself in the manners of a great man." He threw himself at his sovereign's feet, but Charles graciously commanded him to rise, and smilingly received from his hands the memorial in which was narrated the exploits of the conquerors, and especially those of CortÚs himself, in winning a vast empire for Spain. At this first reception by the court, and on subsequent occasions, Charles conversed familiarly with CortÚs, and sought his advice as to the best methods of government in Mexico. He showed him many marks of esteem, and when CortÚs fell sick of a fever the haughty monarch condescended to visit him at his lodgings, which was considered a crowning act of graciousness, and turned the tide of adulation full upon Mexico's conqueror. A more striking proof of the monarch's appreciation was afforded by his investing CortÚs with the title of "Marquis of the Valley" (of Mexico), carrying with it a vast domain in Oaxaca, containing twenty towns and as many thousand Indian vassals.

The presence of CortÚs at court had not only allayed the emperor's suspicions, but caused a reaction in his favor. The honors heaped upon him, also, turned his head, and he "began to assume haughty airs" towards others not so fortunate. He aspired to be viceroy of New Spain, or at least its governor-in-chief; but Charles looked coldly upon this proposition, though he created him captain-general, and permitted him to prosecute discoveries in the great South Sea. He could colonize, and himself rule such colonies as he might establish, while of all his discoveries he was to receive one-twelfth as his own.

One other thing which CortÚs ardently aspired to was an alliance with the nobility. This aspiration was gratified by the noble house of Bejar. The duke of Bejar had been his friend in adversity, and his niece, the young and beautiful Juana de Zuniga, gladly gave her hand to the conqueror of Mexico. Despite his many adventures and escapades, his years (which were now forty-five), and the privations he had undergone, CortÚs was still an attractive man; perhaps all the more attractive because of his experiences. There was no thought of the disparity in age or rank when he led his youthful bride to the altar, for the glamour of the gems he had presented to her attracted the attention of all that brilliant throng assembled for the nuptials. "They were the spoils of Indian princes, whom CortÚs had murdered to obtain them; but they shone resplendent on the person of fair Juana de Zuniga, and so excited the envy of Queen Isabella that, from being the friend of the Conqueror, she became his enemy, for they were the most magnificent jewels in Old Spain."

The jealousy of the queen, on account of the jewels, moved her, it is said, to prohibit the entrance of CortÚs and his bride into the city of Mexico, when at last, wearying of dancing attendance upon the court, he sailed again for the scenes of his greatest adventures. The emperor had left for Flanders, so nothing more was to be gained by remaining. Together with his wife, the marquesa, and his aged mother (who was now a widow, Don Martin CortÚs having died in 1527), the hero of Mexico sailed for Hispaniola, whence, after tarrying a while, he departed for Vera Cruz, where he landed in July, 1530. He returned to Mexico with a large retinue of menials, as became a man with an income exceeding $100,000 per annum, and with a title to maintain. Interdicted by the queen's orders from entering the capital, he took up his residence for a time at Tezcoco, where he held splendid court, assisted by his lovely bride. To such an extent was the city of Mexico represented there, by its most distinguished cavaliers, that the governor issued an edict imposing a fine upon such natives as should follow their example.

This governor, Nuno de Guzman, was the head of the royal audiencia, or court of inquiry, into the administration of CortÚs, which had been sent out from Spain in 1527. He was an inveterate enemy of the conqueror, and while in supreme power pursued him with vindictive energy. The suggestions of this audiencia, which were inimical to CortÚs, were never acted on by the sovereign, and it was soon superseded by another at the head of which was a friend of the marquis, the good bishop of Santo Domingo. The persecution of CortÚs was relaxed; but there arose differences between him and the new audiencia  as to the apportionment of his Indian vassals, and finally, disgusted at the treatment he received in the capital, he left it and went to Cuernavaca, where he had vast estates, and where he built a princely palace.

The reader will recall the manner in which Cuernavaca was taken by the Spaniards under CortÚs, while preparations for the investment of Mexico were going on: how the soldiers crossed one of the two deep barrancas, or ravines, between which it lay, on the trunks of trees which met above the abysmal chasm. Its beauty of position and the fertility of the smiling valleys sloping to the south attracted CortÚs to the spot, who, after shaking the dust of the capital from his feet, established himself here and engaged in agriculture with an ardor only surpassed by that with which he had formerly pursued the Aztecs.

The fact that CortÚs chose this bit of earthly paradise as a retreat for his old age indicates that, after all, he loved the beautiful in nature. The veritable castle he constructed, in which he planned the development of his baronial estate, and his expeditions to the Gulf of California, still stands, in a well-chosen spot on the brink of the barranca  once crossed by the tree-trunk bridge. There it commands a peerless view, comprising the great valleys, the mountain passes, and the snow-crowned dome of Popocatepetl.

This period of his life reminds us of the peaceful and quiet existence led by him in Cuba, with his first wife, Dona Catalina, before ambition robbed him of his rest. He had achieved fame and wealth, and now, apparently contented, he devoted himself to agriculture, the noblest of professions. He introduced merino sheep into Mexico, and was the first to bring the sugar-cane into that country. CortÚs became a successful planter; but life in Cuernavaca was too tame and tranquil for the restless conqueror of Mexico, who possessed royal authority to discover and colonize new lands, and to explore the great South Sea.

In 1527, the year he went to Spain, he had fitted out a squadron for the Spice Islands, and was preparing another when he left the country. He intended it should await his return from Spain; but the audiencia  interfered, called away his workmen, and allowed the ships to decay.

In 1532 and 1533, availing himself of the powers vested in him by his sovereign, he sent out several ships from the port of Acapulco; but nothing of importance resulted save the barren discovery of Lower California. One of the vessels was wrecked on the coast of New Galicia, which territory was under the rule of Guzman, who promptly seized it as a prize. As he refused to release it, CortÚs immediately marched against him with a small army, recovered the ship, and joined it to another squadron which he had prepared in his own port of Tehuantepec. This, his fourth venture upon the little-known waters of the great Pacific, he commanded himself, and such was the prestige attaching to his name, even at this date, fifteen years after the conquest of Mexico (for this was in 1537), that volunteers flocked to his standard from every quarter. Twice as many offered as he could carry in his ships, and he eventually sailed with 400 colonists and 300 slaves to form a settlement in Lower California.

This expedition ended in disaster, like the others, for many of the colonists were killed by Indians, or perished of starvation, and the survivors were finally brought back to Mexico. CortÚs himself preceded them, after having organized a search for some of his ships, which were wrecked on the coast of Jalisco, and doing everything he could to place the wretched colony upon a firm foundation. He did not return, however, until the marquesa, alarmed at his long absence without tidings, petitioned the viceroy to send out ships in search of him.

Still undaunted, and filled with the purpose of exploiting the pearl fisheries of the great gulf (which have since become so famous), the marquis sent out a fifth and last expedition, in command of Captain Ulloa. Yielding to the persuasions of his wife, he did not accompany this squadron, and it was fortunate for him, as the flag-ship never returned to port. In a certain sense this enterprise resulted in greater rewards to science than the others, for Ulloa explored the Gulf of California, following all the indentations of its western shores, and the opposite coast of the peninsula as far up as the twenty-eighth degree of north latitude.

These various maritime ventures of CortÚs in the Pacific cost him upward of 300,000 crowns, and the net results to him consisted in being known as the discoverer of Lower California, and in having the gulf named after him, the "Sea of CortÚs. "Although he still held a vast extent of landed property around Cuernavaca and in the marquisate of Oaxaca, his several expeditions and his extravagant mode of living had plunged him deeply into debt. Writing to the president of the royal council of the Indies in 1538, he says: "I have enough to do to maintain myself in a village (probably Cuernavaca), where I have my wife, without daring to reside in the capital city, or come to it, as I have not the means to live in it; and if sometimes I come, because I cannot avoid doing so, and remain in it a month, I am obliged to fast for a year."

That this dismal tale should be taken "with a grain of salt" appears from his condition three years later, when, notwithstanding his plea of poverty, he carried on his person jewels of inestimable value.

As the owner of a castle and estate in Cuernavaca, palaces in Tezcoco and the capital, silver-mines in Zacatecas, and gold deposits in Oaxaca, the marquis could not have been in very straitened circumstances it would appear. He even contested with the viceroy Mendoza (who had represented the king in Mexico since 1535) the honor of sending an expedition in search of the "Seven Cities of Cibola," then recently brought to light by a wandering monk. Coming into collision with the viceroy over this affair, and regarding his claims as an interference with his rights, CortÚs determined to sail for Spain and in person state his many grievances to the emperor.

Leaving the marquesa in charge of his properties, and taking with him their oldest son and heir, Don Martin CortÚs, then eight years of age, he embarked at Vera Cruz sometime in 1540. Arrived in Spain, he had the chagrin to find the emperor absent (for he seems always to have been either setting out for, or arriving from, Flanders), and, Queen Isabella having died the year before, there was no one in authority to give him a hearing.

There was no lack of courtesy on the part of the court, for that cost little, and, moreover, was a Spanish prerogative; but he received nothing more, though he danced attendance upon it nearly seven years. The emperor returned in due time, but he was a different Charles from the one who had seated CortÚs at his right hand in public and had called upon him at his lodgings when ill. He was the same sovereign, but CortÚs had no longer anything to offer. He had run his career, was old and useless, and, moreover, it was Peru now, and not Mexico, that sent the gold-laden galleons to Spain.

He allowed CortÚs to accompany the expedition to Algiers, in 1541, for the suppression of the Algerian pirates. But the expedition was a failure, the ship containing the marquis and his son was wrecked, and they only escaped by swimming ashore, narrowly missing being captured by the pirates. The marquis had with him, on this occasion, those gems beyond price which he had presented to his bride, and which he had better have left with the marquesa, for, though bound tightly to his arm, somehow they were lost in the sea. "This loss made the expedition fall more heavily on the Marquis of the Valley," says his chaplain, "than on any other man in the kingdom, except the emperor"; but it did not affect him more than the indifference of Charles to his suggestions. He offered to lead a forlorn hope against the place, if he could be supported. Not only was the offer ignored, but when a council of war was called, he was not even invited to a seat at the board. The greatest captain Charles V. ever owned (soul and body, body and soul) was treated by him like the dogs that fed from his table!

Yet this was the CortÚs, and this the king, of whom Spain's great poet wrote:

"Al rey infanitas tierras,

Y a Dios infinitas almas."

"To his king he gave unbounded countries,

To his God innumerable souls":

It is a privilege of the poet to exaggerate, but not of the historian. This anecdote related by Voltaire may be fictional but intrinsically it is true: After long lingering at the court, one day CortÚs broke through a crowd surrounding the emperor's carriage and leaped upon the step.

"Who is this man?" demanded the indignant Charles.

"It is one," replied the marquis, fiercely, "who has given you more provinces than your ancestors left you cities!"

Still he went unrecognized, for more than twenty years had elapsed since the conquest of Mexico, and his day had ended. The months and the years went by, yet CortÚs lingered, as tenacious of his rights as ever, his weakness consisting in an abject dependence upon his sovereign. He was never to receive another favor from that sovereign, but he resolved that Charles should not be allowed to forget his services. In the last of those famous letters to the emperor, written on February 3, 1544, he says:

"I thought that, having labored in my youth, it would so profit me in my old age that I might have ease and rest; for now it is forty years that I have been occupied, with little sleep, eating ill, and sometimes neither well nor ill; in bearing armor, in placing my person in danger, in spending my estate and my life, all in the service of God; . . . also increasing and making broad the patrimony of my king—gaining for him and bringing under his yoke and royal sceptre many and very great kingdoms of barbarous nations, all won by my own person, and at my own expense, without being assisted in anything; on the contrary, being much hindered by many jealous and envious persons who, like leeches, have been filled to bursting with my blood!"

Nothing availed, however, to move the emperor, and three more years of hopeless baiting passed away. "The marquis was now grown old and he was worn down by fatigues; he was therefore very anxious to return to Mexico; but a treaty was on foot between his eldest daughter, for whom he had sent, and the son and heir to the marquis of Astorga." This marriage agreement was repudiated, and, broken in spirit, his pride deeply wounded, with the injustice of his sovereign rankling in his breast, he prepared to return to his home.

During all these years of shameful neglect his faithful wife had awaited his return, his children at home had been without a father's care. Only his devoted son Martin, now a youth of fifteen, was with him when the end came, finally, when on his way to the coast. Beneath his accumulated misfortunes he sank rapidly, and passed away on December 2, 1547, at the age of sixty-two.

His mortal career ended at Castilleja, a suburb of Seville, whence he was borne to the tomb of the Medina Sidonias, followed by members of that ducal family, and the highest of the Andalusian nobility. He was entombed in the land of his birth; but this was not his last resting-place, for his remains, like those of Columbus (whose experience of the ingratitude of sovereigns was similar to his own), were finally taken to the country he had conquered by his sword.

Don Martin, his faithful son, returned to Mexico alone. He fell heir to his father's titles and properties, and, in accordance with the provisions of his last will and testament, the remains of the marquis were taken to Mexico and placed in the Franciscan monastery at Tezcoco, by the side of his mother and a daughter. This was in 1652. Sixty-seven years later they were transferred to the church of St. Francis, in the city of Mexico. On this occasion all the dignitaries of Mexico marched in procession through the streets of the city won by CortÚs more than a century before. The revered relics were guarded by men in armor, Spanish cavaliers, and foot-soldiers carrying arquebuses, with trailing banners, reversed pikes, and muffled drums. Five generations pass away, and again, in 1794, we see the mouldering dust disturbed, when there was another removal to the hospital of Jesus. All that then remained of the great captain was placed in a crystal casket, above which was reared a monument adorned with a bust in bronze.

These various removals had been inspired by regard; but it was a different sentiment that caused the next disturbance, in 1823, when a revolutionary mob, in order to show its detestation of the Spanish conquistadores, essayed to desecrate the tomb. The casket was secretly removed, in the dead of night, by the duke of Monteleone (a descendant of CortÚs in the female line), and for more than seventy years remained in a place of safety, unknown save to a few. Monteleone was killed in a revolution, and all knowledge of the spot was lost; but within a few years the remains have been discovered, and a movement started to have them placed in the national pantheon, which Mexico has erected to all the great names in its history.

The male line from the marquis became extinct in the fourth generation, when title and estates passed by marriage to the ducal family of Monteleone, Neapolitan nobles. How nearly obliterated has become the line that CortÚs founded is indicated in the mournful statement of its only survivor at the time the secret casket was discovered, "I am the sole descendant of Hernando CortÚs, and when I die leave no posterity!"

Thus in a breath we have a commentary on human greatness and renown; thus in a sentence is pronounced an epitaph of the family founded by CortÚs the Conqueror.

The End.

 Table of Contents  |  Index  |  Home  | Previous: The Perilous Expedition 
Copyright (c) 2005 - 2023   Yesterday's Classics, LLC. All Rights Reserved.